John Hanc is a long-time contributor to the New York Times and Newsday and a former Contributing Editor to Runner's World magazine. His articles have also appeared in numerous publications including Smithsonian, Family Circle, the Boston Globe and Columbia Journalism Review. In the past year, two books co-written by Hanc have garnered a total of five major literary awards. Your Heart, My Hands: An Immigrant's Remarkable Journey to Becoming One of America's Preeminent Cardiac Surgeons (Center Street Books), which Hanc wrote with Arun Singh, M.D., won four awards, including Gold Medals in both the 2020 Nautilus Book Awards the and American Society of Journalists and Authors annual writing competitions. Fighting for My Life: Living in the Shadow of Alzheimer's Disease (Thomas Nelson), which he wrote with Jamie Tyrone and Marwan Sabbagh, M.D., also won a Gold Medal in the Nautilus Awards.
What Does the Future Hold for the Fitness Industry—and You?
If you’re a health and exercise professional reading this, chances are you and your business have survived the pandemic. Or you might be newly certified. Either way, you deserve credit for hanging in there, with an industry that seemed in free fall just two years ago.
“You’re still here,” says Julian Barnes, co-founder of Boutique Fitness Solutions (BFS). “And you’re tough as hell.” Barnes’s organization represents boutique (independently owned) fitness studios around the country, but what he says applies to the fitness industry at large—an industry that was decimated by the pandemic, when gyms were forced to close and many fitness enthusiasts discovered the convenience of working out at home.
Barnes cites research from the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association showing that 25% of health and fitness facilities and 30% of studios have closed in the past two-and-a-half years. Fortunately, the picture is changing. “Recovery is coming,” Barnes says, “but it’s slow.”
Despite the heavy toll of gyms permanently shuttered, the high-profile chain bankruptcies and the churn among frustrated health and exercise professionals who left the industry for good, there is still cause for optimism. “People are coming back to gyms,” Barnes said. “Not everyone, but many.” And there could be more on the way: The pandemic was a wake-up call to the urgency of adopting health-promoting behaviors such as exercise.
This has created a new wave of what Barnes calls “uninitiated believers.” These, he says, “are people who understand the value of exercise, but haven’t found a routine they can commit to.” As a certified health and exercise professional, he says, “it’s up to you to help them do just that.”
The importance of identifying new diversified segments of the population, opening new marketing channels to better sell your services and developing deeper relationships with existing and prospective customers are among the principles gleaned from BFS research and offered by a range of veteran health and exercise professionals that, if followed diligently, will position you to meet the challenges and opportunities of the emerging fitness industry. “Our industry is recovering,” Barnes asserts. “And reenergizing.”
Read on to learn how to ensure that you’re a part of the resurgence.
1. Find a way to cultivate a deeper relationship with your customer.
While you may very well form friendships with clients, cultivating a deeper relationship with clients doesn’t mean you need to go on vacation or spend Thanksgiving together.
“When we talk about forming a deeper relationship with your clients, it’s about showing you understand them at a deeper level,” says Barry Kostabi, Los Angeles–based co-founder of Fitness Career Mastery.
Understanding people’s life stories is a way to get that kind of insight. As in any good story, chances are the protagonist (in this case, your client) has encountered some sort of obstacle or problem along the way. For Luke Skywalker, it might have been sorting out his daddy issues, for Frodo Baggins a need to do something with that darn ring. For your clients, it could be something more prosaic—but equally pressing. “They could be going through a major life transformation,” Kostabi says, “a break-up, a new job, or maybe they’ve recently recovered from an illness or surgery.”
Understanding that makes you—like Star Wars’ Obi-Wan Kenobi or Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings—the guide, the wise counsel that helps them overcome the barriers that impede their journey.
Literary and filmic analogies aside, remember that this also makes good, practical sense. The more you know about your client’s situation in life—their aspirations and challenges—the better you will be able to help them reach their health and fitness goals.
“If you want to serve a client better, you need to know more about them upfront,” says Larry Indiviglia, a coach with Todd Durkin’s MasterMind groups in San Diego. “And not just their injury or health history. You want to know, for example, about their personal readiness. What are they ready to do? And perceived barriers: What obstacles do they have in their lives that might prevent them from attaining their goals? That could be a demanding job, family commitments or simply a lack of self-confidence. But these are things you need to be aware of.”
To that end, he recommends something beyond the boilerplate PAR-Q+ health questionnaire that most gyms and trainers have prospective clients fill out. With his MasterMind clients (and he’s coached about 350 over the 15 years that Durkin has been offering this option), Indiviglia uses a nine-part motivational survey that he adapted from the work of Miami University of Ohio health psychologist Jay C. Kimiecik, PhD.
“As fitness professionals, we pride ourselves’ on being able to communicate and connect with clients,” Indiviglia says. Understanding what motivates them, he says, has direct application towards creating positive behavior change. “I submit that a motivational interview should become an integral part of the initial client consultation process,” he says.
2. Build an omni-channel business: Diversify your revenue stream and serve your client’s total wellness needs.
Kari Saitowitz, founder of a HIIT-based studio in Manhattan called the Fhitting Room, took this approach during the 2020 lockdown. For Saitowitz, going “omni channel” meant ramping up the creation of an on-demand video library of workouts, switching live, in-person classes to Zoom and striking a partnership with the retailer Showfields to use a rooftop event space on its Bond Street building to hold socially distanced outdoor classes.
Saitowitz explains that her objective was to expand the ways she could continue delivering what her customers wanted—what they really wanted. “It’s more than just a workout,” she says. “People come here because of the conversation, the socialization, for the fun and motivation of a class.”
The Fhitting Room broadened its delivery channels because they knew their customers. Not everyone does. “We've seen multiple businesses that try to offer every type of class and ultimately they fail, because it’s impossible to do all of those things well, and not every client needs every type of option under the sun,” says Shay Kostabi, part of the husband-and-wife team that owns Fitness Career Mastery.
The same logic applies to individual health and exercise professionals. Omni channel doesn’t necessarily mean trying to be a number of things you’re not.
“It’s a trainer’s responsibility to determine the type of person that they are best equipped to serve and then provide a greater depth of service, rather than breadth,” says Shay Kostabi. She offers this example: If you’re a trainer who is working with clients that are using exercise to help combat stress and anxiety, “it would be a good idea to partner with a coach who does meditation, or some sort of stress-management therapy so that you can begin to become known as an expert and trusted resource in that one specialty.”
3. Establish new and varied ways of marketing your talent.
When Lauren Brenner began marketing her boot camp studio in Manhattan in 2002, things were different. “Back then it was about advertising and getting on TV and press coverage,” she recalls “and we advertised on taxicabs, and I got on The Today Show.”
An interview on your local TV news, much less a nationally televised program, would still be a boon to any personal trainer’s career. But traditional mass media advertising and public relations is not the primary way today’s successful health and exercise professionals are spreading awareness about their services. In many ways, television networks such as ABC, NBC and CBS have been supplanted by YouTube, TikTok and Instagram.
But what about the content? We’re awash in videos, some good, some, well, abominable. Does the world really need to see you demonstrate a push-up? “I think we need to reframe how we think about social media,” argues Barry Kostabi. “Yes, there’s a lot of dumb stuff out there but we’re also starting to see more curated, story-driven content.”
While social media is critical, it should not be the only marketing tool you employ. “The community needs to know you exist,” says Barnes. “That means you’ve got to get out there and be visible.”
And think about underserved audiences. “Are there offices in your area? If so, can you do some corporate wellness training?” Barnes says. “Can you give a brief talk or demonstration on fitness basics at the local Kiwanis club? How about service workers? The person behind the counter at Target or Whole Foods—those people could use the benefits of exercise too. Go to those retailers and see if you can conduct some classes.”
When thinking about marketing, he says, consider the surveys showing that less than a quarter of Americans are getting sufficient exercise. “Three out of every four people you’re passing on the street in your community are not getting enough exercise and could potentially be clients.” Barnes says. “Are you talking to three out of four people in your community?”
4. Continue being adaptable and flexible.
Many health and exercise professionals pivoted during the pandemic, when they made the shift to online or Zoom training or began to hold sessions outdoors. Another pivot may be in the offing now—and it’s a question of what audience segment you want to serve.
“When I hear [someone say], ‘I can work with anyone,’ I cringe just slightly,” says Brenner. “The question should be, ‘Who do I work best with, and who is willing to pay me for that service?’ Maybe it’s helping guys put on mass, maybe it’s college athletes, maybe it’s elderly people. Some trainers work well with moms or teens. What sets you apart?”
Brenner made her own pivot, opening a new studio in Roslyn, N.Y. PowerBox 360—which she calls the world’s most immersive fitness experience—grew out of the pandemic and a recognition that for some fitness enthusiasts, a crowded group fitness room or gym is no longer an option. Participants train as a group but in their own glass boxes, in which the air is changed multiple times during each class. “The only thing we share is energy,” she says.
Energy and enthusiasm are what every health and exercise professional will need to succeed in the emerging fitness world. “If you’re in the fitness industry and you want to survive,” says Barnes, “I think you should have an evangelist mindset—to go out to your community and tell people who you are, what you’re doing and how you can help them. You won’t appeal to everyone, but you will appeal to somebody.”
The Motivational Interview: 9 Factors, 9 Questions
Todd Durkin MasterMind coach Larry Indiviglia recommends using this questionnaire—based on ideas developed by Jay C. Kimiecik, PhD, of Miami University of Ohio—in interviews with potential clients. This can help you better understand your clients’ motivation and readiness for change.
- Personal Goals – What do you want to do and why?
- Personal Readiness – What are you ready to do?
- Perceived Barriers – What barriers might prevent you from attaining your goals?
- Self-confidence – How confident are you that you can overcome the barriers we just talked about? What will you do to overcome those barriers?
- Perceived Benefits – How do you expect to benefit from achieving your goals?
- Physique Anxiety/Body Image – Do you get nervous if you think others are evaluating your body? Is this anxiety a barrier to your exercising in group settings? If yes, what can we do to help ease this anxiety? What can you do?
- Social Support – Do you need support from others to exercise? If yes, how will you get that support?
- Affect – How does exercise make you feel? How do these feelings compare with your feelings during other activities? What kind of exercise makes you feel good?
- Enjoyment – How can you make exercising an optimal experience every time? What can you do to make your exercise more enjoyable?